Forced Emigrations in Pandemic Times: The Peculiar Case of Latin America

October 28, 2021 10:35 AM

Historically, North America was the main destination for migrant flows from all over the southern part of Rio Grande/Bravo: millions of Brazilians, Colombians, Venezuelans, Cubans, Haitians, Central Americans, and Mexicans saw in the “land of the free and the home of the brave” as an opportunity, an American dream.

COVID-19 pandemic, impacts far beyond public health, Forced Emigrations in Pandemic Times:, latin america, trump era, deportations, arbitrary arrests and trials without the full defenceThe pandemic has also severely hit migration flows, whether economic immigrants or refugees. (Reuters Image)

Dr Roberto Rodolfo Georg Uebel

Almost two years later, it is not new that the COVID-19 pandemic has had impacts far beyond public health, such as overcrowded hospitals and the lack of vaccines, to the economy, with the great global economic downturn and the return of inflation in countries like the United States and Brazil, and politics, where political leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro stood out negatively because of mismanagement, denial and inaction regarding the hundreds of thousands of people killed by the new coronavirus. The pandemic has also severely hit migration flows, whether economic immigrants or refugees. In the case of Latin American migrations to the North, especially towards the United States and Canada, it created a rare phenomenon, which I call forced emigration.

Historically, North America was the main destination for migrant flows from all over the southern part of Rio Grande/Bravo: millions of Brazilians, Colombians, Venezuelans, Cubans, Haitians, Central Americans, and Mexicans saw in the “land of the free and the home of the brave” as an opportunity, an American dream, which over the decades, with the increasing of American law enforcement, the economic difficulties and the crises arising in 2008, as well as the election of anti-immigration politicians, like Donald Trump, became a nightmare, materialized in deportations, arbitrary arrests and trials without the full defence, which is advocated by international law and the Organization of American States.

Since Trump’s election, which was based on the promise of building a giant wall on the border with Mexico, when in reality it was a financial scheme to enrich his campaign coordinator, Steve Bannon, and which was the motivating speech in order for him to win millions of votes in states traditionally formed by immigrants, such as Texas, New Mexico, Florida and even the Democratic stronghold of California, Latin American migrations decreased and were forced to find new destinations, such as Brazil itself, and also Chile and Argentina, which had a timid attractive labour market.

However, the successive political and economic crises that were based on the emergence of a general conservative, anti-integration and anti-immigration sentiment, especially in Brazil, which led to the impeachment of the centre-left former president, Dilma Rousseff, and the election of the far-right and ultra-conservative politician Jair Bolsonaro also created an unstable and unwelcoming scenario for immigrants, be they Latin Americans and Caribbean, such as Venezuelans and Cubans and Haitians, or from the other Global South, such as Senegalese, Syrians, Bengalis and Filipinos.

If for a short period of five years Brazil was the country of immigration, it quickly became a nightmare for the immigrants who were here: they were the first to suffer the impacts of the pandemic, with collective dismissals, lack of assistance from the State, difficulties of access to public health systems and nowadays, excluded from the vaccination programs.

Unemployment, hunger and a lack of prospects caused an emigration, which I call forced, of hundreds of migrants, mainly Haitians and Venezuelans, the largest groups, towards a dangerous journey to the north of Mexico, passing through the Amazon, Central America and areas of conflict with narcotraficantes (drug traffickers), and finally the deadly crossing of Rio Grande/Bravo, at the gates of the other America, where they were received not as survivors, but as criminals, illegals and with policemen riding horses and whips.

At the same time, a new phenomenon began to occur alongside these groups, Brazilians themselves, together with Argentines, Colombians and Venezuelans, became emigrants from their nations, which some call brain drain, I also call forced emigration, since they seek, like the immigrants they received before, new and better working, economic, sanitary, and living conditions.

Unlike Haitians and Senegalese, who make their journeys on foot or by bus for nearly 10,000 kilometres, many Brazilians spend their life savings on expensive plane tickets to Mexico and from there pay coyotes to cross them to the United States. Others, with better conditions, and many of them part of a well-educated middle class in Brazil, with masters and doctoral degrees, use tourist, student, or business visas to legally enter Joe Biden’s country and there seek a job and a regularization, or even emigrate to Canada.

These narratives have already been represented in Brazilian soap operas and Argentine books and could lay in the past, were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic and the inefficiency of national governments in providing well-being and the prospect of a resumption of economic growth and social development.

In addition to the peculiarity of forced emigration, another issue that drew attention in these pandemic times is the continuity of flows even with the border closures and the increase in migration controls across the continent by land, sea, and air. Recent data from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as national statistical institutes, show that migration flows were negatively impacted in March 2020, with the declaration of the pandemic, but they quickly resumed their journeys from the second half of last year, returning to pre-pandemic levels in this month of October 2021, with an upward trend, at least for Brazilian emigrants, for 2022.

In this sense, it is worth mentioning that the vulnerabilities of an immigrant increase proportionally during pandemic times: the lack of access to public health services, the lack of vaccination for foreigners, the scarcity of resources, police violence and xenophobia and sexism, these are dramas that are present in the lives of immigrants, especially women, in their journeys.

In a recent study by the Observatório das Migrações Internacionais no Rio Grande do Sul, of the Escola Superior de Propaganda e Marketing, in Brazil, it was found that Venezuelan and Haitian women and children were the groups most impacted by the pandemic in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, in three dimensions: social, health and labour. Unfortunately, no national government has created an immigrant assistance program, which is relegated to NGOs, state and local governments and the aid of individuals.

Today, therefore, the migration of Latin Americans is not just a dream of a better life, but a need for physical, economic, and mental survival.

(The author is Professor of International Relations at Escola Superior de Propaganda e Marketing (ESPM), Porto Alegre, Brazil roberto.uebel@espm.br Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited)

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